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Wealthy people more likely to cheatGreed, unethical behaviour exposed in experimentsBloomberg29 February 2012Maybe, as the novelist F Scott Fitzgerald suggested, the rich really are different. They’re more likely to behave badly, according to seven experiments that weighed the ethics of hundreds of people.The ‘upper class,’ as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to increase their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behaviour at work, researchers reported yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Taken together, the experiments suggest at least some wealthier people ‘perceive greed as positive and beneficial,’ probably as a result of education, personal independence and the resources they have to deal with potentially negative consequences, the authors wrote.While the tests measured only ‘minor infractions,’ that factor made the results ‘even more surprising,’ said Paul Piff, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a study author.One experiment invited 195 adults recruited using Craigslist to play a game in which a computer ‘rolled dice’ for a chance to win a US$50 gift certificate. The numbers each participant rolled were the same; anyone self reporting a total higher than 12 was lying about their score. Those in wealthier classes were found to be more likely to fib, Mr Piff said.‘A US$50 prize is a measly sum to people who make US$250,000 a year,’ he said. ‘So why are they more inclined to cheat? For a person with lower socio- economic status, that US$50 would get you more, and the risks are small.’Poorer participants may be less likely to cheat because they must rely more on their community to get by, and thus are more likely to adhere to community standards, Mr Piff said. By comparison, ‘upper-class individuals are more self-focused, they privilege themselves over others, and they engage in self- interested patterns of behaviour,’ he said.To be sure, Mr Piff and his colleagues also said the associations they found were likely to have exceptions, pointing to Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, who has pledged the majority of his holdings to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charities, and the whistle-blowing of Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, former officials of Worldcom Inc and Enron Corp, respectively.Less wealthy individuals also can behave badly, they wrote, noting the relationship between poverty and violent crime in previous research. They urged further study to determine the ‘boundaries’ of bad behaviour spurred by greed.The studies Mr Piff and his colleagues completed weren’t meant to measure the ties between socioeconomic status and violent crime, but rather simple bad behaviour, he said.Some of the experiments offered visual evidence, for instance determining whether people with more expensive cars observed traffic laws in the San Francisco Bay Area, yielding to cars and pedestrians at an intersection, or whether individuals took candy identified as being set aside for kids. Others polled people on what decision they might make in a given situation.In the traffic tests, about one-third of drivers in higher-status cars cut off other drivers at an intersection watched by the researchers, about double those in less costly cars. Additionally, almost half of the more expensive cars didn’t yield when a pedestrian entered the crosswalk while all of the lowest-status cars let the pedestrian cross. These experiments involved 426 vehicles.
Another test asked 108 adults found through Amazon.com Inc’s work-recruiting website Mechanical Turk to assume the role of an employer negotiating a salary with someone seeking long-term employment. They were told several things about the job, including that it would shortly be eliminated. Upper-class individuals were more likely not to mention to the job-seeker the impermanence of the position, the research found.Meredith McGinley, an assistant professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh who wasn’t involved in the study, was critical of how some of the experiments were designed.The design of the car experiments complicates the picture because having a flashy car doesn’t necessarily mean the driver is wealthy, said Prof McGinley, who studies positive social behaviour. In the experiment involving candy, the participants were told they could have it even though the children were waiting for it. They may have felt they were doing nothing wrong, she said.In the candy test, 129 undergraduates were manipulated to view themselves as wealthy or poor. They were then presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy, which researchers said would go to children in a nearby lab, though they could take some if they wanted. The undergraduates believing themselves to be upper income took more than those believing themselves to be low income, the study found.The research indicates that valuing greed leads to unethical behaviour, not necessarily that income class causes bad behaviour, Prof McGinley said, adding, ‘greediness seems like a much more substantial predictor than income.’The study builds on previous research that has shown wealthy people are worse at recognising how others feel and are more likely to be disengaged during social interactions than others, the authors wrote in the paper.That seems to be the case even in primates, saidMr Piff, who describes his status growing up as being ‘relatively comfortable, middle-class.’ Because of his education, he’s now ‘probably upper-middle class,’ he said.Fitzgerald wrote his view, ‘Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,’ in his short story ‘The Rich Boy,’ which appeared in ‘All the Sad Young Men,’ a collection initally published in 1926.‘It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks - whether as a person or a non-human primate - you become more self-focused,’
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